It seems incredibly appropriate that when J.R. Reid is reached on his cell phone this week, he is...in the barbershop.
There was a point in Atlantic Coast Conference history when Reid's trips to the barber were national news. Reid, who was once the owner of the most famous hightop fade in Carolina basketball history, almost singlehandedly set a hair trend and a national craze during the mid to late 1980s. Reid was one of the best players in Tar Heel history because of his mix of ferocity, tenacity and athleticism. But he was a national personality, conference lightning rod and Sports Illustrated cover subject due in part to that trademark hightop.
Reid had been a first-team All-ACC selection as a freshman, and would eventually earn All-ACC status in each of his three seasons in Chapel Hill. At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, his game was about power. He shot better than 60 percent from the field (60.1%) for his Carolina career, and as a junior during the 1988-89 campaign, was on his way to a season that saw him average 15.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
But he had a worthy rival eight miles down the road. Duke's Danny Ferry was a two-time ACC Player of the Year selection. The 6-foot-10 Ferry had some occasional power to his game, but he mixed it with a sweet touch from the perimeter (Ferry shot 42.5% from the three-point line as a senior in 1989) and, of course, that Duke pedigree that was either infuriating or endearing depending on which shade of blue you preferred.
In 1989, the Blue Devils paired Ferry with a freshman who had some of his same traits, plus an extra helping of smarminess, in Christian Laettner. That Duke duo had already been in the news with Carolina's pair of Reid and Scott Williams. Angered by Cameron Indoor Stadium signs he perceived as racially motivated that read "J.R. can't read," Dean Smith made the observation that the combined standardized test scored of Reid and Williams were higher than those of Laettner and Ferry.
Today's Carolina-Duke rivalry is fueled by proximity, an adoring national media, and by nearly three decades of intense battles between two programs consistently among the nation's best. In 1989, however, the rivalry didn't yet have that tradition of greatness. Bloody Montross hadn't happened yet. Double-overtime in Cameron in 1995 hadn't happened yet. Vince Carter off the backboard hadn't happened yet, nor had a dozen other moments we now consider indelible Carolina-Duke images.
What the rivalry did have, however, was pure hatred. Mike Krzyzewski, at that point, was still a coach establishing himself and his program, and he was tired of looking up at Smith. Reid and Williams, along with the rest of the Tar Heels, didn't like Ferry and Laettner or--truthfully--any of the other Blue Devils.
"I remember hating everybody at Duke," said Pete Chilcutt, a sophomore in 1989. "We didn't want to be friends with them. I can't explain why, but it wasn't something I wanted to do. It's not that I thought they were bad people. That was just my attitude. I didn't mind being friends with State or Wake, but Duke wasn't something I would consider. It was a very bitter rivalry. It wasn't good-natured. It was real animosity."
The off-court animosity was mixed with just the right amount of on-court back and forth. Carolina blitzed through the ACC regular season undefeated in 1987. Duke answered with its "Triple Crown" season of 1988, when the Devils defeated the Tar Heels three times, including the ACC championship game. And in 1989, the rivals split their two regular season meetings.
That set the stage for the ACC Tournament title game in Atlanta 25 years ago this weekend, one of the most physical games in the history of the storied rivalry. The centerpiece was the Reid-Ferry individual matchup.
"I told Coach Smith, 'I want to check Ferry,'" Reid remembers.
Reid's defense helped limit Ferry to a 6-for-20 shooting performance in a game that crackled. At one point, Krzyzewski chirped at Williams for rough play under the basket. Smith took exception, yelling at Krzyzewski, "Don't talk to my players!" Duke guard Phil Henderson would later receive a technical foul and respond by kicking over a chair on the Duke bench. Reid scored on a stick-back with around five minutes left over the flopping Ferry, then shouted at the Duke star to get off the floor.
But between the antics, there was lots of very good basketball. Henderson's 16 points helped keep the game close, and with Laettner adding 15, Duke was able to take a 59-57 lead with 5:44 left.
At that point, in a game that saw 49 fouls called, Carolina's toughness took over.
"That game had everything," Reid says. "Scott's (Williams) shoulder was popping out and coaches and players were barking at each other. But we had so much toughness, and that included my teammate Steve Bucknall, who was so tough."
It was Bucknall who answered the Duke lead with a three-point play (the final six minutes of the game begin around the 50 minute mark in the above video, and are well worth watching), and Carolina would never trail again. Reid and Rick Fox, who finished with 11 points, scored big Tar Heel buckets. Robert Brickey's free throw tied it at 66 with 2:44 remaining, but it was Bucknall again who answered with yet another three-point play.
The 6-foot-6 senior from London would score all 10 of his points in the final six minutes, including four clutch free throws in the final 62 seconds as Duke tried to battle back. King Rice also hit four late charity tosses, and once Ferry's potentially game-tying three-quarters court heave narrowly missed at the buzzer, Carolina had won the 1989 ACC championship, 77-74.
"We did it," Reid told Smith as they embraced on the Omni court.
"You sure did," his coach answered.
Reid was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. But he remembers the 1989 ACC Tournament less for his individual escapades and more for his team's toughness, and for the quest they were on for their head coach.
"At that point, we hadn't won the ACC Tournament since 1982," Reid says. "Coach Smith would never tell us that one game was more important than any other. But we could tell by the way we were working that he really wanted to win that ACC Tournament, and that's exactly what we did."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.